Bloomsbury Raven, 21 January 2021
Available as: HB, 416pp, audio, e
Source: Advance e-copy via NetGalley
'The whole affair was about power, manipulation, ownership'.
Agnes lives in mid-Victorian Bath with her mother and young nephew, Cedric. Times are hard and she struggles to make ends meet, earning a precarious living by cutting silhouettes. But that craft is increasingly being crowded out by the new craze for photography. Perhaps Agnes will be forced to accept help from her brother-in-law, Simon Carfax?
I loved the characters of this book. The self-reliant but dreamy Agnes. The reserved Simon - doing all he can to help, but yet..., the two sisters, Pearl ("the White Sylph") and older Myrtle, who make their living from seances and consultations. Pearl and Myrtle seem to have secrets - who are they and what are they about?
And I loved the setting. This isn't the elegant city of Jane Austen, rather a Bath that's had fifty years of coal smoke bled into it, and fifty years of decay for the fancy buildings. It's a town of soot, railways, rot and mould, seen in the depths of a gloomy English winter. Agnes' house is shabby and unkempt: Pearl and Myrtle's lodgings damp and draughty. The reader senses just how tenuous the lives of these women are in a patriarchal society. The point is brought home when, through ghastly coincidence, Agnes has to report a strange death to the police and her home and business become of interest to the unpleasant (and suspicious) Sergeant Redmayne.
But that's only the beginning. It seems there's a killer loose in Bath, a killer who seems to be threatening Agnes and her family. Unable to trust the police, Agnes turns to Pearl, the young medium, for the help she needs. As the two investigate - observed closely by the jealous and resentful Myrtle - we gradually learn more about the tragedy in Agnes' own family, and the mysterious (and missing) naval officer, Montague, who seems to be at the heart of it all.
In Purcell's latest Gothic romp, the supernatural - if that's what it is - isn't confined to a remote dwelling but is intertwined with the bustling life and grimy streets of a provincial town - just as the fashionable Spritualism in which Agnes seeks answers is located in comfortable parlours and fashionable salons. Contrasts are everything here - between the past and the present; science (represented by the medicine and rational outlook of Dr Carfax) and the supernatural; men and women. It's a churning, teeming world that Agnes, infirm after a recent bout of pneumonia, has to negotiate. Her sister Charlotte, Cedric's mother, may have been dead twelve years, but her shadow still looms over Agnes's haunted life.
The Shape of Darkness is the perfect Gothic novel, a book that combines an elusive but growing sense of dread with an uneasy atmosphere of confinement - despite the proximity of the sprawling streets and parks of Bath, it mostly takes place in shut-up rooms, windows blocked. And more, there is a palpable sense of limitedness, of confinement by, and obedience to, rules of society, of choices made and sealed years before. And it's confinement with - or very near to - a monster, whose form, motives and methods are as shifting as all that fog. In asking Pearl for her help, Agnes is leaning on someone who is still a very young girl and who is also ill (nearly everybody in this book is ill!)
Purcell is the absolute master of this sort of thing, playing detective story-like tricks with red herrings, subplots and dead ends, until the reader is - well I was! - totally muddled, wound up with tension and fearful for everyone in the book. Then, the hammer falls...
If you enjoyed this author's previous books, you'll love The Shape of Darkness. If you didn't, that must mean you haven't read them yet, so you have a treat in store and The Shape of Darkness would be a good place to begin.
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of The Shape of Darkness to consider for review.
For more information about The Shape of Darkness, see the publisher's website here.